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Valve, Steam, and Empowering Visual Creatives
by Andre Elijah on 04/07/14 10:02:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

My name is Andre Elijah.

I am a gamer, and work in the film world in post-production. Currently I’m starting an indie game studio with a friend in Toronto to explore ideas that we’ve had over the years. Last year during the DICE conference I was really inspired by Gabe Newell’s talk with JJ Abrams. I thought that the possibilities when Valve team up with Big Robot could be endless. When pairing the content of that talk with other appearances that Gabe had made last year it definitely painted an amazing picture for Valve and the future. I found it odd however that despite all of the talk from Gabe regarding the opening up of Steam, partnering with a film studio, and developing Source 2.0 there was no talk of enabling creatives that are JUST cinematic storytellers. Not 3D modellers making Dota2/TF2 items. Not developers making mods. Not designers making custom maps. Just people that want to use Valve’s tools to tell great, innovative stories visually. Yes Source Filmmaker is out there for the world — but there is a lack of major updates, I don’t think it does enough for a film-centric community or takes big enough advantage of Steam’s various features. Because of this — I sent an email to Gabe outlining my thoughts on where Valve can go in the future. Obviously because it’s Gabe Newell — he probably never saw the email but I think that a year later a lot of these suggestions could be leveraged to make a stronger product, community, and empower a new generation of creatives. There has been a lot of different responses to my notes - everything from Source Filmmaker should be strictly for shorts, to it doesn't need anymore structure or ways to monetize, to people wanting more traditional film workflows to be more effective. I think that all sides of the discussion are valid - and truthfully I'm curious as to what others in the community think about the tools, and whether or not they see a need to improve them, advertise them more, or just leave things the way they are. Obviously some little things have changed since I wrote this last year, but the bigger thoughts still have some merit I believe.

1. Monetization

Steam is an amazing network of connected services. The current services available, from game mods available via the Workshop, to cloud saves, to the new community features — they all serve as a great basis to what could be a great interactive video service that could complement and monetize the Source Filmmaker.

Paywalls:

In terms of the most straight forward approach to monetization I would look to Vimeo’s latest strategies, of implementing a pay wall, and adding a “tip jar”. Adding a pay wall would simply be an easy way to turn Steam into a virtual movie theatre, or online rental service like Netflix or iTunes. For longer Source Filmmaker films approaching feature lengths, filmmakers can charge a small fee to “rent” the film. Additionally they can charge a higher fee for purchasing the film. For smaller novelty pieces, or ones that require less effort to produce, filmmakers can use the “tip jar” approach to solicit small amounts of donations for their effort to continue to fund their hobby. Seeing as how every Steam user already has a mode of payment attached to their accounts, and can pay for games and hats, it would be worth exploring the idea of impulse purchases and tipping to complement the rise in higher quality films being produced with Source Filmmaker while creatives get more familiar with the tools available.

Community Asset Sales:

Independent developers, creatives and the like need their hands held when adapting to new platforms and software. This hand holding usually comes in the form of pre-fabricated elements that take some of the painful manual labour out of the workflow — at least initially. In the world of film, editors buy visual filters, effects plugins, and sounds. In the world of game development fledgling or time-critical developers often purchase models, environments, animations, and code snippets. For the folks at Unity3D this has become a central part of their business model. During your recent talk the Lyndon B Johnson school you acknowledged that the Steam community creates far more content than Valve ever could and that Valve employees are the bottleneck when it comes to getting community assets into your various games. Personally I don’t think that should go unnoticed and that community effort should be monetized even if they can’t be worked into the TF2 store. Any hobbyist that makes their items available to be put into Valve’s games should be presented with an option to make those very same items available as in-engine “Props” for the Source Filmmaker. By employing the community and using the same pricing schemes already in play — Valve would stand to greatly benefit by the overflow of community-created assets and animation/film enthusiasts that wish to use your tools to create something new.

Developer/Publisher Asset Sales:

Using the community to fuel the asset store would be a great first step in proving the viability of the business model. However I think that it would be amazing for the Source Filmmaker to step outside of just using Source-game based assets. Hardcore TF2 players know that when it comes to getting cool items for the game it usually takes the pre-ordering or purchase of another unrelated Steam title to acquire them. I’ve done this a couple of times just for an item — even if I have no intention of playing the game. How amazing would it be if in addition to getting an item for TF2 I could get the main protagonist, antagonist, a particular level, and other low level baddies from a game that I buy to use specifically within Source Filmmaker. In one way — it serves as a form of promotion and marketing for another developer or publisher’s IP. On the other hand it serves as another way to monetize the Source Filmmaker and possibly sell more games to people who are creatively minded but don’t necessarily want to play the game. Wouldn’t it be great to have Chell in a scene with Nomad from Crysis and they square off against the Doom marine? I for one would shell out for even more titles just to have the flexibility to create scenes that aren’t squarely set inside of TF2. I know that you recently announced collaborations between Valve and Bad Robot. Imagine if JJ made a 3D model of Cloverfield and a couple square blocks of New York City available as Source assets. The community of gamers could create parallel stories and imaginings of what happened the night that Clover attacked. It would take the viral marketing and alternate reality games to a whole new level that could be VERY powerful in terms of both pushing forward creativity and making money. A few years ago we saw what a few dedicated filmmakers, the Purchase Brothers could do with their Half-Life 2 homage, Escape from City 17. That story could be produced at a much lower than their $500, and with much more intensity using the Source Filmmaker — provided that it could be turned into more of an open system. Opening up new revenue streams using Source Filmmaker assets and environments could really open up Valve to a whole new industry. Leveraging the existing relationship with Bad Robot could be a great publicity stunt and gateway drug for users to get lost in the tools.

2. Leveraging the “Film” Aspects of Source Filmmaker

Proactively Engaging Filmmakers:

The best part of the film experience is sharing it with someone else. Whether it is sitting in front of a screen with someone, or sending someone a Youtube link to something that made you chuckle. Seeing as how Source Filmmaker is catered primarily to gamers — it is important to reach out to the film community through Source Filmmaker evangelists to industry blogs, publications, and at trade shows. It is an amazing tool and deserves to have the spotlight on it far more. Every person that I meet working in film is a gamer. Editors play games while waiting for their film cuts to render, and grips on set just like to frag each other. In fact, while on set in New York in 2011, I met a grip that had two limited edition Playstation 3s signed by Hideo Kojima. When he pulled out his phone to show it off there was a huge crowd of fifteen people taking a look and joining in on the conversation. Gaming is that important, and important to people in a competing industry like film. These are the people you want to use the tool. They’re talented, passionate about their industry, and passionate about the entertainment that the worlds of video games give them!

Interactive Storytelling:

In your lecture the other week you mentioned “From a psychological point of view the way you self pace is linked to optimal absorption of that game”. Also in the world of film a director’s job is to set up the story and character. The payoff for the audience comes through the revelations that are made throughout the film. All of these notions can be redefined using the Source Filmmaker. A Source Filmmaker project is made up of various camera angles, predefined actions and animations, and dialogue. All of these happen in 3D space and can be individually controlled. What if the experience of watching a movie became more interactive than just sitting in front of a screen passively for two hours, and slightly less interactive than directly crafting the narrative at play by pressing buttons on a controller, running around and shooting bad guys? How great would it be if the average viewer that just wants to sit in front of a screen could do just that, but for those more invested in the narrative and want to explore the storytelling methods could do just that by picking and choosing a list of predefined camera angles to explore a scene. What if the viewer being entertained by the “film” could speed up and slow down playback, and free roam a scene. All of a sudden if Cloverfield were made in this way — instead of watching the scene unfold in front of a shaky cam — you could run away, or watch the scene play out from the perspective of cameras on the street, etc. Having the community build narratives from interactive real-time engines like Source could enable these new forms of storytelling that straddle the line between films and games like no other. All of a sudden people lacking in the reflexes and concentration necessary to command an action title can participate in the story being told in a completely fulfilling way without being made to feel insecure because they can’t keep up with 13 year old boys playing Call of Duty. This goes back to the notion of self-pacing that you have been championing as of late. Alternatively aspects of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure games could be implemented as well since Source is at its core a game engine.

Mobile Strategies:

I read last year that Valve was looking to bring DOTA 2 to mobile tablets — but that you stopped because the devices weren’t powerful enough. I fully understand that as an interactive game requires not only real-time processing of graphics, but also artificial intelligence running the various non-player characters, streaming of assets, game logic, etc to take place on the SoC of a relatively weak device when compared to even mid-range PC systems. What if though you could strip away all of the things that make a game a game and just leave behind the engine to run these interactive “films”. Could that not be made to run on an iPad or Android tablet? Could Source not be leveraged to take advantage of interactive second screen experiences? Using Steam’s “Cloud Save” feature users could start a film at home, pick it up and continue where they left off on their iPad if they get kicked off of the TV or have to go somewhere. With the push for Steam to break into living rooms with Big Picture — this would be the perfect entertainment experience to show off that would pique the interest of those that aren’t into gaming. Even in the case of DOTA 2 viewing on portable devices — how many more banners can Dendi sell if his fans aren’t only watching him play on their computer, but at a friend’s house streaming from an iPad to an Apple TV, or on a train ride? It’s something to consider.

Steam Branding, The Living Room, and “Steam Theatre”:

I firmly believe that some of these ideas would go a long way to creating a majestic experience and ultimately maximize the productivity of both Valve’s efforts with Steam as well as the productivity of the community by lifting the restrictions of what can or cannot be created for an engine that is capable of virtually anything. Even integrating the engine with newer technologies like the Occulus Rift headset to enhance these experiences would be amazing for more boutique needs. In continuing with the constant Steam branding including “Steam Workshop”, “Steam Greenlight”, and “Steam Big Picture”, I really think that Valve should release “Steam Theatre” to the community. Obviously Valve has the bandwidth capabilities at its disposal. All of a sudden Steam can not only be seen as a source of gaming entertainment, but instead a source of cross-platform MULTI-media entertainment. Native exporting from Source Filmmaker to “Steam Theatre” and related “Game Hubs” would be a great aid in discoverability and getting exposure for budding filmmakers or experts of the tool. To that end, Valve could even leverage popular game industry personalities and film industry veterans for curated lists of films. I’m fairly confident that Cliffy B’s favorite Source films would be wildly different to those of Steven Spielberg. Putting a strong focus on the actual film aspects of Source Filmmaker could go a long way in helping adoption of Steam running in the living room, Steam Box units when they start to ship, and positioning the Steam service itself as more than just a way to get games online.

3. Geeky Stuff

Integrated Tools:

I know that Source 2 is in development and that its technically going to be a new engine. I would still love to see it effectively be an update to the original Source where all content can be easily be imported and improved upon. As a creative that likes to use really tight knit software ecosystems I would love to see Source Filmmaker be rolled into the rest of the Source 2 SDK. Having the Hammer level editor, modeling tools, and Source Filmmaker all rolled up into one distinct tool would help to blur the lines between films, and video games. Ultimately this would help film pros and game developers create any type of experience that they’d like. Whether that be a film, game or a hybrid approach, Valve stands to gain tremendously due to my suggested initiatives to make more money through making content available. By integrating the various Source tools creatives can choose to create to create interactive or passive experiences not based on the tool that they’re using but instead based on what’s best for the story!

Film Industry Conventions in Source Filmmaker:

It would be amazing to see some of the conventions used by popular non-linear editors like Avid, Premiere, and Final Cut followed as well for the Filmmaker tools in particular. Allowing the user to us pre-set keybinds from those pieces of software, context sensitive menus that they are used to seeing, and multiple video/audio layers as opposed to just one track with multiple “shots” would be really useful for people coming from the edit room, and more traditional world of film. For people coming straight out of school — allowing for the import of standard 3D model files from Maya, 3DS, and Softimage would be really helpful as opposed to importing into the Source SDK, rigging for Source, exporting for use in Source titles, then using them in the Source Filmmaker. Its a convoluted process that really limits what newer users can do with the software.

Mac/Linux Support:

Of course like all of the other first-party Valve titles it would be great to see Mac and Linux compatibility for Source Filmmaker/Source 2. The last couple of years have been interesting in the world of film due in part to Apple’s insistence of pushing half-baked editing software and antiquated hardware on the professional market. I have worked with a bunch of studios and teams in their move to more multi-platform tools that allow them to use the svelte MacBook Pros for working from home/on the road, and desktop PC towers in their edit suite. It would be great to have Source Filmmaker on all three platforms before long.

Middleware/Distribution Licensing:

I’m also hopeful that Source 2 will be licensed to more developers and studios. I really think that tools like Unity and UDK need another competitor to go up against and I would love for Source to be that competitor. Even if a build of Source 2 were provided on an as-is basis that doesn’t come with any support other than some written documentation — Valve could charge for licensing and mandatory distribution via Steam for a higher rate than those usually used in the industry. This could make for a great symbiotic relationship between Valve and the community since creatives have an huge install base to target, and Valve makes money off of every sale which you have direct access to track.

4. Summary

In the long term my goals for Steam as a fan, and consumer are much like yours — to have it be far more open. Having a store full of goods not created by AAA developers and publishers, but instead goods made by other people just like me. Valve is limited in how much content can be pumped out. A part of letting the community pick up where you leave off is to empower them with tools that are as open ended as the company that makes them. Those tools need to be freely available, easy to get lost in, open ended, powerful, and allow for experiences to be portable between computing environments, form factors, and different types of mediums be it a game, film, or interactive art. By unleashing the full potential of these tools, and the Steam platform in general, Valve will no doubt become far more productive, earnings per employee will dramatically increase, and with an army of millions of contributors around the world Valve will become the biggest entertainment company in the world with an ecosystem where everyone is paid for their efforts contributing to an even healthier ecosystem of shared success. With this next generation of tools, more than ever the marketplace would be empowered to make their own decisions on what is of value to them, be it small building blocks to help create games and films, fully produced games and interactive experiences, or more hats. Valve’s job at the end of the day is to maximize the productivity of its users by creating digital goods and services.


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